25th Trillium Award

Profile on Mark Frutkin, with a few questions

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Mark Frutkin. Photo credit Sandra Russell.


A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the worth of a word is limited only by the imagination. Take the word "chair" for instance.

When I say "chair" you might imagine a fine cherry wood seat in an elegant dining room, the dirty white plastic chairs in the back yard, a king?s throne, a slab of stone. The possibilities are legion. You might think of the chair you found your aunt slumped in the night she died, patterned with faded roses. You might think of a chair on the Titanic, a chair at the United Nations, an electric chair, your child?s first wooden seat. When you hear the word "chair" you might think of the same word in Italian, French, Serbian, Urdu, Mandarin. You might think of the history of chairs, the construction of chairs, chairs as art, as objects to throw, to prop against a door, to stand on when changing a light bulb or reaching into a high cupboard for dusty muffin tins. The picture of a chair is certainly more restricted than the word "chair", which, in its generic form, leaves almost everything open to the imagination.
                    — From Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously) by Mark Frutkin

In moving through Ottawa-area literary events, one might be forgiven for not noticing Ottawa author Mark Frutkin. He?s a quiet, serene figure, despite his prolific output over the past two and half decades: eight works of fiction, three works of non-fiction and three collections of poetry, this past year saw the publication of a novel, A Message for the Emperor (Vehicule Press/Esplanade Books, 2012), and a collection of short essays, Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Quattro Books, 2012). I first met Mark Frutkin in 1992, when I attended his year-long poetry workshop at the University of Ottawa. He was filling in for Professor Seymour Mayne during a sabbatical year. It was where I also first met poet and playwright Tony Dandurand (who produced a number of plays and a small collection of poetry before returning home to British Columbia) and poet and fiction writer Rhonda Douglas, two other participants in the workshop.

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Frutkin is an unusual figure not only in Ottawa but in Canadian writing, not only for his range of interests but for his unusual biography. He attended a Jesuit high school in Cleveland and a Jesuit university in Chicago. He was part of an exodus of draft dodgers who left the United States for Canada during the Vietnam War. He worked in factories in Chicago and Cleveland during summer breaks from university and spent a year at university in Rome in 1967-8. After university, he taught high school. In 1976 he attended Naropa University, a Buddhist institution in Boulder, Colorado, under Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan. Who else can claim such a diverse history in such a short period? Frutkin became a Canadian citizen in 1976 and moved to Ottawa four years later, where he now lives with his wife and son.

Frutkin?s work is unusual in Canadian writing for its depth and breadth. His fiction explores European and Asian history, and his novels are more likely to be set in 15th-century Italy, early 20th-century France or Tibet or ancient China than in any corner of North America. To this day, his best-known works include a fictional biography of the French poet Apollinaire, Atmospheres Apollinaire (The Porcupine?s Quill, 1988; Beach Holme, 1998), which was shortlisted for the Governor General?s Award, the Trillium Book Award and the Ottawa Book Award, and the more recent Fabrizio?s Return (Knopf, 2006), which won the Trillium Award and the Sunburst Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers? Prize. The collection of essays, Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously, consists of a series of aphorisms that play around, between and amid his other writings.

rob mclennan:

From your author biography, it?s pretty easy to see your interest in European history, travel and literature, and your books have always been international in scope. To what do you attribute this?

Mark Frutkin:

First, let me discuss my interest in history. You once asked me a good question at an Ottawa International Writers? Festival reading: ?Why the interest in history?? At the time, not thinking on my feet, I had a supremely unsatisfactory answer, not worth repeating here (and I don?t even recall exactly what I said). But, interestingly, it?s a question that has come back to me many times since. I can say now that I believe my interest in history has to do with stories — history is nothing but stories. Stories as well known as WW1 and WW2, 9/11 or the sinking of the Titanic; stories that are little known or completely unknown; stories from every society, culture and time period around the globe. Whenever I read history (and I read a lot of it in doing the research for my books), I come across the most fascinating stories from the past: like the fact that cannibalism was not unknown at restaurants in the capital of Song Dynasty China (11th to 13th century); like the fact that Stradivarius violins are coated in a lacquer that gives them a sound that cannot be replicated; like the fact that in 1300, when Marco Polo returned from his 17 years in China, Italy boasted five of the six largest cities in Europe. As I read, I come across fascinating facts or events that become jumping off points for scenes in the novels.

The interest in European travel arises from the fact that a roommate of mine in sophomore year at Loyola University in Chicago convinced me to join him in a third-year abroad program at the Loyola campus in Rome, Italy. It was a year filled with travel around Europe and marveling at art, history and culture; learning to drink and enjoy wine, as well as discovering genuine French and Italian food; and awakening to the world, outside and in. I?ve never stopped travelling since then.

As for Euopean literature, yes, it?s true, I am somewhat more drawn to the European sensibility in writing than the North American. Although there are many American classic writers I love (Whitman, Melville, Poe, Kerouac etc.), I find contemporary American fiction severely bloated and unappetizing for the most part. I?d much rather read Garcia Marquez, Beckett, Joyce or Conrad over Jonathan Franzen or the myriad of blockbuster writers the American celebrity circus churns out. (Although I love the poetry of Billy Collins.) Generally, Americans are not writing about a world I care much about. I also read a good variety of Canadian authors, both poets and novelists, because Canadian literature, I believe, makes a nice link between American and European literature. Ondaatje, Richler, Mavis Gallant all seem much more European in sensibility than American. I also read a lot of work from England. Jeanette Winterson, Ian McEwen, Julian Barnes and others. Also, international classics: Cervantes, Dante, Chinese and Japanese traditional poetry. But perhaps I go on too long and have pretty much answered the second question.


The types of novels you seem to compose are quite different from much of what appears in mainstream Canadian fiction. Who were the writers important to your work when you started, and who have you discovered since? Who is important to you now, and how do you see your work fitting into a Canadian context?


Other than what I mentioned above about a European sensibility, I?m not sure what a Canadian context is. Maybe I?m more of an internationalist. Little of my fiction is set in Canada, although In the Time of the Angry Queen is set in Toronto with a few scenes in Ottawa and the Gatineau hills. In general, I?ve chosen to write about Italy, France, Spain, China. I suppose the stories there just happen to inspire me. It?s hard to pinpoint the causes of literary inspiration. It?s quite a murky area, very much an amalgam of upbringing, genes, early reading, the discoveries of early adulthood, coincidence, fate, and so on.

Most of the writers I mentioned above were important to my work. Early on, I?d have to say T.S. Eliot was important because a third-year high school English teacher turned me onto modern poetry through him. As a kid, I read everything: kid versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, lots of biographies, the encyclopedia (The Book of Knowledge was the one in our house), everything about wars and baseball and American history (having been raised in Cleveland, Ohio), the Hardy Boys (the better-written early ones before they were dumbed down) and I recall really being taken with Alexandre Dumas? The Count of Monte Christo. Read it again more recently and was quite disappointed.

A little later, in early university, I connected strongly with Dostoevesky?s Crime and Punishment. It?s wonderful when you feel you are actually "living" a book. You become so involved, so there. I suppose one begins to lose that with age and one spends a lot of time trying to regain that feeling. Then a few years later, I became quite interested in Japanese novels. Yasunari Kawabata and Mishima (his first, The Sound of Waves, is his best and least violent) and others. Maybe they have influenced the brevity of my novels. I?m sorry to go on and on but I could talk about books for a long time, with great joy. Of course, I loved the early Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence?s This Side Jordan (I think it?s her best), Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (this one had a seminal influence on my work) and more recently the poetry of Don McKay, the novels of Guy Vanderhaeghe, etc, etc. Certain writers I will read anything they write or wrote: Shakespeare, Garcia Marquez, Beckett, Joyce, Conrad, McEwen, Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, etc. I?m tempted to just go ahead and list all my favourite books but that would take much too long.

As for how my work fits into a Canadian context, again, I?m not sure it does. At this point, I don?t have much interest in grand family sagas or the angst of the contemporary city dweller. But that could change, who knows? I really do think I?m doing something different than any other Canadian author. I think a good book should have not only character, plot, etc., etc. but beautiful writing as well. For me, a good book should be heartbreakingly beautiful and sad and joyful and, for want of a better word, it should aspire to transcendence. It should aspire to be so much more than a simple entertainment and should try to reach beyond itself. So many novels today seem to exhibit all the interest in language of a newspaper article. And there?s a real fear in literary circles of anything that smacks of a spiritual life. I?m not fond of dogmatic religion, by any means, but I do believe we humans (writers included!) have an important and essential spiritual component that is widely ignored. But that?s just me. Hell, I?m one of the few who still reads and writes poetry and any poet can tell you, there aren?t many of those around (though there are more writers of poetry than readers, unfortunately).


You recently published two memoirs: Erratic North A Vietnam Draft Register?s Life in the Canadian Bush (Dundurn Press, 2008) and Walking Backwards (Dundurn Press, 2011). Why was it important to tell these stories now, and how do these works add to your consideration of your fiction? Why two memoirs so close together?


These works are fairly distinct from the fiction although Walking Backwards certainly has that sense of globe-trotting about it, as it is set in cities all over the world. I think of Erratic North as my "country" memoir and Walking Backwards as my "city" memoir. As one writes one?s memories, one awakens things one didn?t realize one had forgotten. Memories I didn?t know I had woke up. The second memoir came about because I was in that memory-unearthing mode and wanted to continue with it (while I still had a decent memory).


You mention in your biographical information studying with Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan during a six-week period at Naropa University in 1976, after which you burned ?a two foot pile of notebooks.? What do you think you learned from either of them? How important do you consider those six weeks at Naropa to your ongoing work?


I learned from Ginsberg that it was okay to love the classics even if one were writing in a contemporary or experimental mode. He loved Blake and William Carlos Williams and many others. That was eye-opening for me. Also, at Naropa, I heard a lecture by Robert Duncan. He talked for three hours straight about cave paintings, modern poetry, etc. etc. and knocked my socks off. Ginsberg said "Read Apollinaire, read 'Zone,' a great work." I did and wrote a novel about the French poet (Atmospheres Apollinaire). Duncan turned me onto cave paintings and I wrote a novel inspired by those (Slow Lightning). So, Naropa had a big influence. I also met my Tibetan Buddhist teacher there, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who has influenced my life and writing in countless ways.


What was the impetus for the essays that make up Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Quattro Books, 2012)?


I had been writing and collecting short essays for many years. In fact, the very first writing I did was some aphorisms that came to me and I wrote down during boring university lectures. I decided to go through those 30 years of notebooks and choose the best ones and put them together into a book.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell

Read Open Book's Proust Questionnaire, with Mark Frutkin.

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